An amazing era ended in late December when Jim Strillacci retired after 20 years as police chief in West Hartford, Conn., and moved to Little River, S.C.
The 59-year-old Strillacci, who had been a policeman for an overall 35 years, also ended a 33-year relationship with Conard (West Hartford, Conn.)
where he had been a very cherished volunteer wrestling coach.
Many former Conard wrestlers returned to honor him at his final match.
"I walked in the gym and started crying," he admitted. "It hadn't dawned on me that these guys would show up just for me."
The West Hartford police department also honored him with a special luncheon.
"I still get choked up, knowing he won't be with us anymore," Conard coach Chris Glowacki told MaxPreps. "He's been with me most of my life. He was an inspiration for me."
Assistant coach David Gabriele added, "He's going to be missed tremendously. I'm getting a little emotional about it right now."
Respectfully called "Chief," Strillacci never lost his zeal for wrestling after a fine high school and college career. Even at 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds today, Strillacci was a very fierce competitor as he worked out with Conard's top wrestlers during three practice sessions per week.
"You don't beat the Chief," Glowacki affirmed.
Lucas Muntz, state champion at 145 pounds and third in New England as a sophomore, found out when he took on the Chief in a full match at the end of the season. The Chief triumphed by a resounding 15-0 margin. Muntz is a junior this year.
Strillacci isn't as positive that he never lost a match to one of his high school proteges.
"That might be stretching it a bit," he cautioned. "I probably lost some by one or two points. I'm not going to make that claim, because we had a lot of tough kids."
Nobody let up on the Chief because they always wanted to beat him in the worst way. Few, if any, ever did even as he aged.
The competitive wrestling, however, was just a sidelight.
Glowacki pointed out, "He would talk to the kids while wrestling with them. He would show them moves. All the kids had the utmost respect for him. He would come to all of our matches, sit in the stands and write down notes. At the next practice he would critique the kids."
Gabriele added, "His impact was not only the wealth of knowledge - we considered him a walking encyclopedia - but he also brought to the table the most fair, honest individual a wrestling program could have. Honesty, respect and sportsmanship. There were times Chris and I would get off line. Chris called it our moral compass. He would always have us do the right thing.
"My favorite thing was watching him in the room wrestling with the kids. He would shadow wrestle - cat and mouse. There was constant conversation in terms of a teaching situation. He brought that consistency and intensity that every match was the state finals. He did everything the kids did (climbed ropes, ran, etc.). He set a tone for the kids. It was great for us as coaches to have someone in the mix with the kids, doing whatever they were doing."
Gabriele pointed out that Strillacci, who also worked with troubled kids at The Bridge, "saved plenty of kids. They didn't get special treatment from the police department, but he gave them the right guidance. He made sure they went through the system the proper way."
Glowacki recalled, "We would get some pretty tough, troubled kids and Chief could always make a connection with them. There were numerous cases, kids he just turned around. He had the youthfulness and could just connect. He was tough but tender."
Glowacki gave former wrestler Jesse Wrubel as a good example. He noted, "Chief worked him every single day. He was a tough kid and didn't have a lot of direction. Chief just turned him around and he was state champion at 145 pounds his senior year."
Strillacci always gave his wrestlers advice on how to keep their noses clean, but not every story was a success.
He mentioned one wrestler who came "from a tough family. He got arrested for some stupid thing and lost his chance. That really breaks my heart. You can't save everybody. Kids are our future. We've got to do what we can for them. It's easy for some to make bad choices. It's hard to get them back."
Strillacci's great love for wrestling was far from natural and had to be developed over the years, because he attended a catholic grade school where students weren't allowed to run or even have a ball on the playground. When he entered Maloney (Meriden, Conn.) as a freshman he didn't even try out for a sport.
As a 5-foot-2, 103-pound sophomore he was asked by a friend to try out for wrestling. He noted that one of the school's smartest boys also was out for the team, so he decided to take a shot.
"It was rough," he admitted. "I worked harder than I ever had worked."
He lost his first tryout match, 3-2, to a second-year wrestler and his coach was pleased.
The brainy kid soon quit the team and so did the athlete he had lost to, making him the top 103-pounder in his first year. He placed fourth in the state as a junior and graduated in 1970 at 5-6 and 115 pounds.
Still hungry, he went to the University of Hartford, a Division II college, and twice won the New England championship at 118 pounds. Superstar Dan Gable was his idol and he proudly hung Gable's picture in his locker.
"My goal," he explained, "was to work harder than the other guy. I would outlast the guy if I couldn't out-skill him."
He looked at wrestling as "a good fit for me. Anything with a ball involved was kind of foreign to me. Body-to-body worked well. It's very democratic with a lot of weight classes. It's also an intellectual sport. There are strategies involved."
After college graduation in 1974, Strillacci wanted to become a police officer, but he had to be at least 5-foot-8.
Unable to achieve his dream job, he was told, "You always can be a lawyer." So he headed to the University of Connecticut law school.
"I hated it," he admitted. However, while at UConn, he learned that the height requirement was scratched and replaced with physical and agility tests, which he passed with flying colors. He became a patrolman in 1976.
Joe Glowacki was the policeman who did the background check before Strillacci was hired and he asked the newcomer if he would give some wrestling lessons to his two young boys. He agreed immediately.
One of those boys was Chris Glowacki, who recalled that in 1977 Strillacci asked then-coach George Beaudry if he "could roll around with our team and he never left. He only missed one year - three years ago when he had elbow surgery."
Strillacci concedes, "The last five or 10 years age was creeping up on me. I had some injuries. My knee was scoped. I had arthritis on the elbow and couldn't reach my collar or tie my tie. I'm not as flexible as I was."
He is living near North Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High School and checked it out recently. H found out - much to his delight - that the school's nickname is the "Chiefs."
Could his "career" be extended into his 60s?
"I'm going to keep my options open," he said, "I'm certainly not done with fitness. I have to make some new friends out here. I'm going to look up their schedule."